Who knew prehistoric Britain and Japan had so much in common?

A Japanese flame pot at Stonehenge - Sam Frost
A Japanese flame pot at Stonehenge - Sam Frost

What do the wilds of Salisbury Plain and Akita Prefecture, a province in north Japan, have in common? Six-thousand miles apart – and divided by language, culture, and geography – the two places are nevertheless united by their prehistoric past.

The sight of Stonehenge’s Megalithic forms is well-known around the world, but the stone circles of Oyu and Isedotai – which have recently been awarded Unesco World Heritage status – are rather less famous. A fascinating new exhibition at Stonehenge highlights their archaeological significance and draws a vivid map of cross-cultural exchange.

There is no suggestion that Neolithic populations travelled from Wiltshire to Japan or vice-versa, but the similarities are still striking. Both sets of stone circles are thought to have been built around 5,000 years ago – in Europe’s late Neolithic age, and in Japan’s Jomon period – and the structures appear to have similar purposes. They are aligned with midwinter and midsummer solstices, and had a role in burial rites.

The exhibition is star-studded with material that has never left Japan before, from an ornate 5,000-year-old flame pot which is thought to have been used for cooking (and is still stained with burnt-on remnants of meals), to the partial fragments of clay figurines known as “dogu” which are believed to have been broken and scattered in fertility rituals. The shattered figures – all with feminine breasts and masked faces – are a powerful and disconcerting link to the concerns and practices of the distant past.

But the connection between Japan and Stonehenge is more than one of mere similarity. The exhibition also features the collection of William Gowland – the engineer and archaeologist who lived in Japan when working at the Osaka mint.

A Dogu mask from Isedotai, Japan - Sam Frost
A Dogu mask from Isedotai, Japan - Sam Frost

Gowland was the first person to propose that Stonehenge was a Neolithic site built according to the movements of the sun, and his discoveries in the early 20th century are still some of the most significant archaeological work done at the stones. And yet, none of these would have happened had he not worked in Japan, and been introduced to the idea of sun worship by learning that the Japanese Imperial family claimed direct descendance from the sun goddess Amaterasu.

The exhibition also features prints by Yoshijiro Urushibara, the Japanese artist who worked in the UK for 30 years after visiting for the 1910 Japan-Britain exhibition. His prints of the stones are ghostly, ethereal, and full of the mysticism that has been associated with Stonehenge for millennia (although others feature the more quotidian presence of the grazing sheep). Now, in this small but revelatory show, the link between Japan and Britain that is so prevalent in Urushibara’s work is placed in a fascinating wider context.

Until Aug 2023. Tickets: 0370 333 1181; english-heritage.org.uk